A key problem with the “information” communicated in the now-infamous dossier supposedly compiled by an ex-MI6 operative on Donald Trump is that it’s asinine.
Not all of it is asinine. But there’s enough of it that’s asinine to justify qualifying the whole dossier in those terms.
Let’s backtrack briefly to set the dossier in the proper timeline. Although the majority of Americans only heard about it yesterday (Wednesday, 11 January 2017), most of it was actually provided to the FBI prior to the end of October 2016. And portions of it were known to left-wing journalist David Corn, who wrote about it for Mother Jones, by 31 October. At that time, he reported that the ex-MI6 operative had been providing the FBI with the dossier’s memos “in recent months.”
The dates in the dossier’s collection run from 20 June to 13 December 2016. The timeline dovetails with reporting from numerous sources that compilation of the dossier was first commissioned by Trump opponents in the GOP, and then was sought by the Democrats as well. The Republican and Democratic political customers were reportedly acting through at least one unnamed firmed in Washington, D.C. to solicit the services of the ex-MI6 man, who was identified today as a Mr. Christopher Steele, co-founder of Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd. in London. Steele has reportedly gone into hiding now.
The 20 June date would fit with the point at which the Republican Party was handed a fait accompli by Trump in the primaries. It was clear by the end of May that he had gained the requisite delegate count for the convention. An order for intelligence from Orbis placed at or shortly before that point would have reasonably yielded the first report by 20 June.
So that aspect of the narrative adds up. (Although why Steele, who supposedly was being paid by the political parties for his work, was also providing his information to the FBI, presumably for free, is another question.)
I note before moving on that the current, agitated focus on John McCain appears to be somewhat misdirected. He reportedly became aware of the dossier sometime not long before 9 December, which is when he turned it over to the FBI. (McCain apparently met with Christopher Steele as well, before forwarding the dossier to the FBI.) But the FBI had indeed had it for months at that point. There doesn’t seem to be evidence that McCain has been trying to attack Trump with the dossier.
He and his staff might usefully have applied some healthy skepticism to it, however. It’s quite possible that they did, I suppose, and that McCain merely acted out of a (most prodigious) abundance of caution in forwarding the dossier to the FBI.
An unimpressive specimen
Given the manifest disingenuity and foolish openness of what the Russian contacts are supposed to have said, according to the dossier, my first impression is that Mr. Steele was being royally played, from start to finish.
I’m not here to cast doubt on his background as an experienced intelligence professional. It isn’t necessary to pass judgment on that to impugn the content of the dossier. I do very much doubt that what Steele was apparently getting from the Russians was provided to him with honest, straightforward intent.
I’ll copy here a couple of passages, out of several, that ring very false. Keep in mind: the Russian contacts know who Steele is, and they know his current status as a partner in a commercial spook company. If they were hacking email accounts and otherwise spying on the RNC and DNC organizations in the summer of 2016, they also knew who he was working for. Russians with inside knowledge of what’s actually going on in the Kremlin are not going to spill their guts to Steele – at any time, or for any purpose. They’re going to package information for him, to persuade whoever he’s passing it on to.
With that in mind, consider what the contacts are supposed to have told Steele. This passage is from 2016/100, dated 5 August 2016 (language warning):
For starters, it would be out of character for Putin’s Kremlin to care at any time whether there was a “backlash against Russian interference in the US election.” But after the Ukraine policy split in 2014, and more than two years of strained, irritable, often disdainful relations between Washington and Moscow, it would have been really out of character. The idea that Peskov was running in fear for his job over having spearheaded a project that could only have been ordered by Putin to begin with is, well, just silly.
That’s aside from the fact that there is no incentive for a Kremlin insider to tell someone in Steele’s position the truth – about this or anything else. This whole passage is a monumentally non-credible spilling of the guts. The stray allusion to Peskov having somehow “interfered” in the coup attempt in Turkey is a flashing red light in that regard; there was simply no reason for anyone to tell Steele that, and it comes off as a data point gratuitously placed by someone with an ulterior motive.
The phrasing of the reference to “Russian interference in the US election” is itself too pat, in the context we’re looking at. It too exactly mirrors the media narrative of the last eight weeks. I don’t doubt that the memo was provided in August 2016, but I do doubt that the Russians were genuinely talking about their activities in those terms in August 2016.
Instead of coming off like an early clue, or independent confirmation, the “interference in the US election” reference comes off like a carefully placed part of an extensive package of disinformation.
This excerpt is from 2016/130, dated 12 October 2016:
Are we seriously supposed to think Putin is – well, frankly, as stupid as he is depicted to be here? He would really be “surprised and disappointed” that leaks of Hillary’s hacked emails “had not had greater impact on the campaign”?
Think about it. First of all, the actual emails hacked by a Russian-sponsored operation were those of the DNC. It’s imprecise in a weirdly perfect way for a supposed Russian insider contact to misname them as “Hillary’s hacked emails.”
But beyond that: to be surprised and disappointed, Putin would have to be completely ignorant of the patterns of American media. One of the main reasons “Hillary’s hacked emails,” or John Podesta’s, would have little impact on the presidential campaign is that the mainstream media would decline to tell the public the truth about them; i.e., the worst of their content, the extent of their implications. Which indeed is the MSM pattern we saw at the time. The MSM emphasized that emails had been hacked, but said hardly anything about what was in them.
We’re supposed to accept that Putin doesn’t know that?
That in itself is a ridiculous proposition. You’d have to live inside the Western left’s echo chamber to not see how absurd it is – which Putin assuredly doesn’t. About the incorrigible tendencies of the Western MSM, he is undoubtedly very clear-eyed.
If Russian contacts actually said these fatuous things to Steele, the most likely explanation is that they were playing to the expectations harbored by those they knew to be the ultimate audience: the RNC and DNC customers of the “intelligence.”
Wrong tone, overly convenient data points
The whole passage gives that impression, in fact, up to and including the hilarious sophomore-seminar framing of why Putin had mounted his “aggressive Trump support operation”: because “Russia needed to upset the liberal international status quo…which was seriously disadvantaging the country.”
Give me a break. Highly placed Russian MFA contacts don’t even talk that way. That’s not how they see the world. (They would dispute the existence of a “liberal international status quo,” for one thing.)
If Steele was overlaying his personal prejudices on their actual words in his report, shame on him for bad intelligence field work. You always quote directly and use the subject’s own words, regardless of how you feel about them. But I really think Steele himself is not the one to pursue further here.
You know who does talk that way? George Soros. There are others who do too, from the New York Times editorial staff to the Atlantic Council and the Council on Foreign Relations to the EU Foreign Ministry – but those other entities haven’t been sinking hundreds of millions of dollars over the last 20 years into transforming America. Nor are they connected with BuzzFeed as Soros is, through his funding of the Poynter Institute, which alongside BuzzFeed has pushed the narrative that “fake news” (collaterally imputed to, you guessed it, Russia) adversely affected the 2016 election.
It doesn’t look like a coincidence that BuzzFeed is the outlet that has just published the Trump “dossier.” The dossier reads from start to finish like something concocted to corroborate media themes about Trump’s Russia links, and the supposed Russian influence on the election.
One could pick apart numerous passages, but another thing that stands out to me is the exact and exclusive fingering of Paul Manafort and Carter Page.
In a real intelligence investigation, there would be references to other people in connection with their activities, even if the people were unnamed. The intelligence would reflect the reality of human life, which is that people other than Manafort and Page would be present, alluded to, or involved in collateral activities that would come up in the course of reporting. There would also be both less, and more, about their activities (Manafort’s and Page’s). Less detail in some matters; more in others. You’d have to parse out the intelligence value for your own purposes. You’d have to interpret the events described; they’d be little nuggets requiring analysis.
But what we get in the dossier is Manafort and Page, caught in the act and tied up in a big bow – as if the whole, broader dossier was written as hastily assembled backstory for framing them as Trump’s sneaky S.O.B.s. (The same can be said of the oddly convenient phrasing of key concepts like the aforementioned “Russian interference in the US election.”)
As confirmation of earlier-raised suspicions about the two men, it’s too pat and packaged. Again: as if the dossier, and a lot of the media reporting from early 2016 on, all came from the same script.
Very little that the Russians reportedly said sounds like the Russians would have said it – at least not with a straight face. Too much of what’s in the dossier does nothing more than serve to confirm the suspicions raised by reporting in the U.S. media. It’s hard to pick one thing that the whole dossier comes off like. But here’s what it doesn’t come off like: intelligence.